Layers of Guilt

 

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Pre-COVID happy space
CW: Mental Health - ish

Every week for at least a month, I have sat down at my desktop computer to write. The blinking cursor surrounded by white space taunts me, “You have no words.”

But I do. Just not the right ones.

For a while now, I have felt guilty that the pandemic has not affected me much. I’m exceedingly lucky to have a job from which I work from home. I even have a separate room that allows me to switch on and switch off from work. I’m healthy and everyone I know is healthy. I live in a state and a country with far fewer cases than those of my friends and family in other countries. And all of this. Every single bit of it. Gives me such overwhelming guilt.

It has been that guilt that has stilled my hands, and so the blinking cursor’s rhythmic taunts continue.

After an impromptu chat with some of my best writer friends, I decided I need to ignore that guilt. Every story is different, and why shouldn’t I talk about some of my experience with this cursed year?

I have wanted to talk about how much harder it is to write in 2020, the year of COVID-19. At first, I thought my writer’s block was because I am feeling the inequality in the world all that much greater (it’s so bad!) . And then I thought it was because I’m addicted to video games again (over 665 hour on Animal Crossing). And then I thought it was because I’ve turned lazy and incapable of doing anything productive.

The truth is: While all of those things, and the layers of guilt that come with them, certainly have something to do with it, the primary reason is because of the loss of my writing space.

I mentioned before that I have a separate room from which I work 40 hours a week. That room, once upon a time, was my creation space. The place where I built worlds and spent hours fighting inner demons. But in March, all of that changed when I went from one-day-a-week working from home to five days a week.

When I first started working from home full-time, I started at 5:30am and finished around 6pm. I felt I owed it to my company to get the most out of my day as possible, since they were trusting me to do this abnormal working arrangement. I would forget to eat lunch or take breaks; I’d sometimes even forget I hadn’t gone to the bathroom in hours (yikes). (I should note that at no time did the business ever require this of me; it was completely self-imposed.)

In May, the company started sending out mental health communications. It seemed I was not alone in doing too much. At an online seminar, a psychologist told us tricks to stop this vicious cycle. They were simple:

  1. Set your start time and do not turn your computer on until it’s time.
  2. Set a lunch hour in your calendar. That way no one will schedule a meeting when you’re “switched off.”
  3. Set your end time. Turn off the computer and close the door to the room, if you have a separate office space.

While these tips didn’t help most people in the company, since finding a spare room is near impossible in most households, they helped me. I spoke with my manager and set my boundaries. 7am start time, 12pm lunch break, 4pm finish time. It was a great setup, which I have largely maintained since.

Only, I didn’t realize at the time that it had reprogrammed my brain to think my creative space is now a work space, and I continued to sabotage my desk by putting post-it notes around my monitors to remind me of color codes for Power BI and formulas I wrote “just in case,” spiral notebooks filled with minutes and ad hoc notes, and a calendar with meeting times and reminders (because I’m old and like to duplicate what’s already in my Outlook calendar).

Still, as I mourn the loss of my creative place, I’m also riddled with the guilt of having an office and work and health (sorta – I’m fat, ya’ll) and the privilege that comes with all of that. But I’m also incapable of knowing how I can help change my world, let alone this world.

Layers of guilt is healthy, right? Sure. Yep. Totally.

Recovering racist

CW: Racism

It was March 2002. This morning’s topic of conversation: the 2002 Oscars. It had aired the night before, and I was excitedly talking about my favorite moments. I (a white-appearing part Native American) was sitting on my white male manager’s counter-desk with my heels hitting his overstuffed filing cabinets.

“I was so glad Halle won!” I said. I pumped out my chest as the head chef, a Texas-bred black man, walked by and nodded at us.

“Yeah, same,” my manager said. His smile half-seen as he focused on his computer screen. “And Denzel.”

I shook my head, “Nah, dude. He didn’t deserve it. It was only cuz-of that Affirmative Action bullshit that he won. Denzel should’ve won for The Hurricane in ‘99.”

My manager swung his chair around, stood up, passed me, and closed his door. On the other side, the chef walked past again, eyes narrowed.

“You can’t talk that way!” my manager said. He crossed his arms.

“Uh, what?” I asked, oblivious. I didn’t want to admit that I had mimed the words my father had said earlier.

“It makes you sound racist,” he said with a stern expression.

“I’m not a racist!” The knee-jerk reactionary words rang in the closed-in space. “My best friends in high school and college were black.”

He shook his head and walked back to his chair. He sat, posture rigid, practically imposing.

“That’s exactly what racists say.”

“But it’s true.” 

I jumped off his desk and landed with a soft thud on the ground. “I’m done here,” I swung open the door and crossed its threshold.

He called back to me, but I ignored him. I stalked into the ladies’ bathroom, cheeks burning. I’m not. I’ve never – Who does he think he is?

I didn’t know it then, but he had sown the seeds of doubt in me. 

I think back now to my high school and college friends, the ones I so boldly misused as mascots to my non-racism. I think about the trombone player with broad shoulders and a broader smile. I think about how instead of playing football as he would have been “suggested” to do, he spent his days practicing his instrument and playing Mario Kart with his white friends in his upper-middle-class home. I think about the half-black girl adopted by two white parents and how she never sounded “black”. 

Did they code-switch to match their environment? Probably. Did I know what code-switching was back in 2002? Absolutely not. 

I think about my college friend. His blackness was the butt of every joke he told since he was the minority in our circle of friends. “Horror movies have it all wrong. As a black man, lemme tell ya. There ain’t no way in hell he’s walkin’ into that house. He’s high-tailin’ it outta there.”

He’d laugh, we’d laugh, and I just wonder now if that wore away at his racial pride at all.

I didn’t do or generally say the things overt racists do, but that does not mean that it wasn’t there. From an early age, I learned from my parents to keep my feelings hidden. I’d hear Dad say things in the privacy of our home. It would be a natural occurrence for him to say the n-word or other slurs that should never be uttered. Raised in a strict and sheltered household, it was normal. This was how everyone acted. I was too close to it to see the truth.

It took one closed door and a frank word for me to realize I might be racist.

It would take longer yet to overcome the deep programming of my youth, and it would take distance from my family for me to see the source of my hate. It would take reading other people’s stories to understand how generational trauma occurs and affects people. And it would take documentarians to show me the truth about racial profiling and incarceration.

I can’t say I’m the best person to talk to about racism. I’m probably not the ally that people of color need right now. But I do know, sometimes all it takes is one nudge to change a person’s heart. 

So you can be damned sure I will speak up if I hear a racist comment. 

Island Escape

It would seem I am not okay.

Until yesterday I had assumed I was. But as another day settled and all I did was work and play Animal Crossing, I realized the truth. I’m escaping from this solitary existence into a game with ten imaginary friends.

For those not “in the know”, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the latest in a long-going series of games developed by Nintendo. The aim is, well, nothing specific. It’s a simulation game where you pretend to be a creature living on an island. It’s pure imagination-fueled. You are given an island, basically, and you have to catch fish and bugs and garden and spend copious amounts of currency (on bridges, furniture, inclines) until you can make your island less, you know, island-y. As you travel through the game, you get cute anthropomorphic residents (my favorites are a sheep, a zebra, and an anteater). None of them have jobs or do much of anything except sometimes sing or pretend to fish and catch bugs or ask you weird random questions or give you clothes for no reason. It’s cute, it’s relaxing, and best of all, it’s all yours.

I have logged over 250 hours into the game already (released 22 Mar). It’s been all-consuming. Over a 4 day weekend, I planned to write, do some weeding, read a bit, watch a couple of movies, and finish crocheting a scarf (because: cooler weather, yo!). I managed to do… none of those things. I was caught in a vortex.

I woke on Friday morning with the best idea. Make a secret hidden amusement park at the back of my island. Once I went down that rabbit hole, it turned to adding a bamboo forest and moving all the residents into their own little village, and the list goes on.

It seems I’m not alone in my not-okay-ness. The sheer volume of people talking about it on Twitter and Facebook and Reddit, and so on, is just mind-boggling. It was my therapy, but no more. I know it for what it is. It’s an addiction.

So now that I’ve said it, did I reach the first step? Am I cured? I both hope so and hope not. Because, I love my little island and it brings me such joy. (Pictures because why not?)

 

(Also, for those that do play and wanna be friends, my friend code is SW-3080-7022-4167)

The Distance

20191014_051439We moved to our neighbourhood mid-year 2019, five months before the first case of COVID-19 occurred. It was a quiet, residential area surrounded by bushland, hills, and walking parks. We introduced ourselves to the neighbours in our cul-de-sac when we moved in, but after that, we never engaged in conversation. Most of them were aging, though, and we made a habit to smile and wave when they are out tending their lawns or feeding birds. We learned early on, from our morning dog walks and afternoon strolls, where the dogs lived and whom owned cats allowed to roam free.

Less than a block from our front door, there’s the entrance to a one kilometre walking park where we let the dogs out on full-leash so they can sniff the grass and wee on the trees. Sometimes, they spot a kangaroo or wallaby before we do, leaving us puffed as we try to wrangle them to our sides.

But mostly, we learned that no matter the time of day we enjoyed a walk, we rarely came into contact with any other people. Evening walks at 4-5-6pm showed us that as people returned home from their jobs, they locked up and stayed indoors. The dynamics of middle-class life were the same: work-home-tv-sleep. Despite our differences, we were the same.

As we entered week four of social distancing, we challenged ourselves to 10,000 steps every day. It seemed unachievable. There was no walking from a car park, or train, into the office anymore. There were no incidental trips to the grocery store or to get coffee with the boss. Routines that we weren’t even aware we had were gone.

Late Monday, when the best I could muster was 7,000 steps from taking the dogs for a walk and pacing my living room during telecons, I suggested we go for a walk, like we used to. We left the house, expecting the same lack of people as before, forgetting that the world wasn’t the same since the last time we took an evening stroll.

As we entered the walking park, we noticed several couples and families on the paths. For the first time since moving into the area, we saw how culturally diverse our neighbourhood is. It seemed oddly heartwarming. But it didn’t stop there.

Every couple and group were observing proper social distancing. If there was an intersection, one couple would slow down while the other would speed up so they would not be in danger of coming into contact. Families chatted from across streets as one small group would cross the street rather than risk coming into physical contact. We followed a similar path, walking onto the grass when we noticed a dog and his owner coming our way.

As dusk sent the world in shades of pink and amber and orange, I realised we were all the same. Isolation has driven us from our homes but made us socially conscious for the first time. And that’s weirdly comforting.

It may not be the same everywhere, but here, in my little suburb, distancing has brought us a little closer together.

Mousse au Chocolat

First period class with Mrs French was our favorite. She was one of the coolest teachers. She somehow managed to pull off a pixie cut despite being old (read: middle-aged – ya’ll kids are jerks). Coincidentally, she was the French teacher and ran French club. The irony was not lost on us freshmen.

She walked in Friday morning wearing a cute little black beret, carrying a tray full of little glasses filled with chocolate-y goodness. Around me, there were little pockets of whispers and chuckles from my classmates. I bit my lip and clicked my pen open and closed and open again in quick succession.

“We’re totally going to get wasted,” I heard the girl behind me whisper out of earshot of Mrs French.

I shifted my weight as the teacher dropped the tiny glass onto my desk, teetering on a seesaw of should Ishouldn’t I? 

 

Last night, the first ever meeting of French Club was so cool. We went to the popular girl’s home and spoke broken French to each other while Mrs French (geez, that’s a lot of French in two lines) collected the ingredients to make our very own mousse au chocolat, the fancy way to say chocolate mousse.

We piled into the kitchen and started following the recipe. Mrs French carried over a bottle of amaretto and poured a tiny teaspoon into the mousse.

“A little won’t hurt,” she told us. “‘Sides, the french give their children wine to drink as early as six.”

We chuckled and whispered among ourselves as I stirred the chocolate mixture constantly.

It didn’t take long before something pulled Mrs French’s attention away and the bottle of amaretto came out. It was two inches from my nose, upturned and filling the top of the pan in a fine layer.

“Stir faster, Mel!” I heard. And I did, feeling a little naughty and a little ashamed at us.

Mrs French trotted back in, “That’s smelling so good.”

She asked us to work as a group to translate what she had said into french and walked away.

The amaretto came out again and trickled into the pan. Girls were snickering, and the few boys were elbowing each other in the ribs.

When the cook was over, Mrs French told us how great we had done and announced that the mousse had to set. It would take a few hours, so she would bring it in for class in the morning.

The small group of fourteen-year-olds groaned but accepted begrudgingly.

 

I eyed the dessert with a caution generally afforded to vegetables I’d never tried. I took my spoon, dipped the tip into the mousse, and put my tongue to the edge. It was sweet, but I thought it would taste funny. Dad’s Crown Royal smelled like it would taste cringe-worthy. I drove my spoon into the mousse again and tried it properly. This was creamy and rich and so yum, but there was no hint of alcohol. I breathed a sigh of relief and polished off the small glass in a few spoonfuls.

A few of my fellow students showed looks of disappointment.

At the front of the class, though, Mrs French sat at her desk with an all-knowing smile on her face. Needless to say, none of us got drunk off the mousse that day.